When Consultants Get Too Close To Their Clients...
Conventional wisdom says that you're better off if your client is your friend. It's true that most of the time, people tend to purchase from who they like. In our trade, being close to your clients is a natural consequence of working long hours on challenging projects. Yet after many years in consulting, I tend to see some limitations to this assumption. Let me explain.
Lack of objectivity
Working as a consultant means that sometimes tough things need to be said. Being too close to client's employees may impair your judgment. We can’t help our clients if we don’t feel like we can openly say what needs to be improved.
We also have to bear in mind who hired us in the first place. Most of the time, we're appointed by shareholders or top management to get things right. On a daily basis, we work with their teams and we create bond with operational managers. To some extent, it can create conflicts of interest as we may become biased.
Pressure on your pricing
Friendships can sometimes impair your bargaining power. With a specific client, I have always found it difficult to charge my actual rate or to readjust it. I have known the manager for a long time and have grown very fond of her. I noticed that I had been charging her the same rate for the 5 past years- which was unfair to me. Like many consultants, I felt uncomfortable discussing pricing. It's okay to grant to your best client a special price but you should be able to bill your work for what it worth.
If you're relationship with your client looks like an old couple, be worried. Excessive intimacy with clients can cause a lot of harm. Consulting is nothing if your client doesn’t have the bare minimum of fascination for your work. It’s key that you maintain some mystery around your persona to keep the romance alive. Clients hire consultants because they're different and because they bring an external point of views. We need to stay a bit different.
So what is the right balance?
There is no need to be excessively cold but there are some best practices that should to followed:
Don't become too familiar
Leave a shade of mystery around you. Don't talk too much and keep listening. It's ok if you know more about your client than what they know about you. Even if honesty is something you dearly value, you don't have to say everything on the way you work and live.
Keep surprising your clients
You need to feed the passion of your client-consultant relationship to maintain the whoa effect. Find new ideas that can be relevant to your client. Innovate on your business presentations. Buy innovative gadgets. Bring new people to work with you.
Learn to stay away
We all know that having just one client is dangerous. Working with several clients will make you much more attractive. It will assert you're value to your client. Besides, leaving your client for a while will help you to restore this distance that you have lost.
These recommendations will vary depending on your local culture and will need to be adapted to fit your own personality. Consultants are humane after all.
Beyond any rules, authenticity will always be your best practice.